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In Their Shoes

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Schools across the country have stepped up campaigns against violence and bullying by incorporating lessons about empathy into their curricula, reports the New York Times.

In Scarsdale, an affluent and high-achieving school district in New York, for example, students discuss qualities of empathy in the relationships among Shakespearean characters and assess local wheelchair access to relate to people with physical disabilities. "As a school, we’ve done a lot of work with human rights," said Michael McDermott, the principal at Scarsdale Middle School. "But you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has to go together." This year, the school has spent $10,000 on empathy workshops and has seen a significant drop in incidents of bullying and harassment on buses.

However, some question whether empathy can—or should—be taught in schools. Michael Petrilli, vice president for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, noted that although teaching empathy sounds uncontroversial, "there’s a laundry list of seemingly important activities that, when added together, crowd out the academic mission of our schools."

Deborah Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, said that although the empathy lessons may seem "artificial or hokey" at first, they can create a more positive school culture over time. "I don’t know if you can teach everybody to be empathetic," she acknowledged, "but you can raise awareness."

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I think one of the most powerful ways to guide students through growth in emotional intelligence is through reading modern YA novels, chapter books, and picture books. Let the student self select from large list of topics/titles, or better yet, let your library-media specialist teacher them how to search for books on topics such as poverty, apartheid, racism, and genocide. Instead of spending all that money on external workshops, maybe everyone could read, discuss, and act socially more often? I say invest locally... Oh yeah, and start treating kids with more respect. It is contagious.

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